Best Defense

What the hell happened at NDU?

A best defense columnist looks back at the National Defense University.

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Best Defense is in summer re-runs. This item originally appeared on Sept. 3, 2014.

By Gerald Mitchell
Best Defense guest columnist

I taught at the Joint Forces Staff College for 21 years after a career as an Army infantry officer and had the good fortune to serve for or with some great leaders such as General John J. Sheehan, Admiral Hal Gehman, Admiral Paul D. Miller, Admiral Frank Kelso, LTG Russel Honoré, RADM Don Loren, MG Robert Mixon, and others. Over those 21 years, I appreciated the great leadership at NDU of LTG Richard Chilcoat, LtGen Francis Wilson, and others. Having taught in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the United States Military Academy, I understood the underlying theories and principles that get you to the “profession of arms” that the CJCS is trying to renew.

Over the last four years at NDU, my observations give me great pause. I had such high hopes when MG Martin came in pushing books like Moneyball (the movie and the book) and Good to Great. The “on-base percentage” of his players (NWC, JFSC, Eisenhower School, etc.) was pretty good. Surely he wouldn’t screw around with the lineup. And the “hedgehogs” were producing pretty good purple widgets with the right folks driving the bus and some great folks on the bus (read the above books). Things changed. The great folks jumped or were pushed out of the backdoor of the bus; they starved the hedgehogs to death; and they built, as General Tony Zinni would say, a huge “self-licking ice cream cone” at NDU Headquarters.

The issues at NDU can be categorized in four areas:

•         Leadership environment

•         Dysfunctional organizational structure

•         Second and third order effects of the above issues on component colleges

•         A grave concern is the future of the Joint Forces Staff College

Leadership environment. The problems with the leadership environment can be tracked back to about four years ago, which correlates with when the current provost came to power (with rampant rumors of how he was suspiciously selected over some other very highly qualified and experienced applicants). The provost held earlier positions of chief, institutional research and assessment at ICAF and later, at NDU HQS. It was a meteoric rise to power without the benefit of leadership positions or experience that you would customarily expect to prepare a person to assume such a high authority and responsibility position. This is a very important point to understanding the leadership environment problem. The provost was responsible for preparing the university for the Middle States Accreditation that is critical to NDU’s to award masters degrees in the component colleges (NWC, Eisenhower School, and JFSC/JAWS). NDU was put on probation by Middle States for deficiencies in “leadership and governance.”This was probably enough to get the leadership relieved in most organizations (failure on a major inspection would be cause for relief of command in our services).

During this same period, NDU’s use of government credit cards was revoked for improprieties. Again, this would get a ship captain fired immediately. The CJCS, through the J7 (LtGen Flynn) took notice of the leadership issues at NDU and re-structured the chain of command, reducing the rank of the NDU president to a two-star position and placing the J7 directly over NDU. CJCS (through the DJCS) directed that all coordination by NDU would be routed through J7 for oversight. The J7 forwarded a Joint Staff Action Process (JSAP) directing NDU to focus on JPME and to divest from the many centers and research activities that had been developed over the past ten to fifteen years. The mission was clearly defined for NDU (focus on the needs of the warfighters [combatant commands] and develop leaders to meet the needs of the future). Note that two taskings in the JSAP — determine the requirements for the College of International Security Affairs (CISA)/divest from the masters degree program that has been recently stood up at Fort Bragg, NC; and discontinue the Homeland Security Planner’s Course (HLSPC) and the Joint Interagency and Multinational Planner’s Course (JIMPC) at JFSC or shift them to another sponsor. Instead of following this guidance on CISA, it has become a “favorite child” college of the NDU provost and president, to the detriment of the other colleges. The formerly assigned military “dean” of CISA has become a “chancellor” and CISA has grown in the number of teaching positions while the other colleges have seen decreases in funding and positions. This is an indication of the poor leadership environment caused by “cronyism.” HLSPC and JIMPC were discontinued in spite of the JSAP feedback from USNORTHCOM, NGB, OSD, and others recommending that these courses be continued. The CJCS directed that NDU continue these courses. The Provost unilaterally cancelled them on April 1 without asking the stakeholders for help in resourcing them.

The NDU provost developed a concept called “One NDU” in response to the Middle States Accreditation finding of a lack of leadership and governance at NDU. In summary, the provost’s concept called for the consolidation of all administrative functions (IT, registrar, library, wargaming and modeling, etc.) at the NDU headquarters level. For example, JFSC’s library, IT support, wargaming and modeling, etc., would be controlled from the Fort McNair campus. The people in Norfolk providing these support functions would work directly for NDU HQS. The impact of this new organizational structure has had tremendously detrimental effects on JFSC’s mission. I will come back to this issue. The NDU provost and president were so wedded to this new concept that any critical analysis has been met with threats of being fired for being “disloyal” — see the articles by Tom Rick in Foreign Policy and read to editorial comments by folks at NDU. To quell dissent, and probably out of blind ambition, the provost had the NDU-P sign a letter to the component college commandants and directors notifying them that all issues in the university had to go through the provost before being presented to the NDU-P. In other words, the NDU-P placed the provost in the chain of command between himself and the military commanders of the colleges. This met with strong protest by the one-star generals and admirals, to no avail. Once again, an already poor leadership environment got worse. In addition, the provost crafted letters for the Board of Visitors to the CJCS recommending that NDU have a chief education officer (CEO) with all-encompassing power over resources and personnel matters. The provost has on several occasions suggested that continuity of the leadership at NDU was critical and that the NDU president should have a much longer term. (If a flag or general officer cannot stay for more than three years, then perhaps make the NDU-President position a civilian?) Another very serious lack of leadership involves the failure in due diligence in the development of a university-wide student information system. The provost was tasked by the NDU executive council to oversee the needs assessment, design, and operationalization of an automated system for student management. Two years later, and close to $5 million wasted, NDU has no system. Once again, in any other agency of the government or the corporate world, this kind of failure in pecuniary responsibility would be cause for relief or firing. To summarize the issue of leadership: The provost and NDU-president have created an environment characterized (and described by Middle States) by a lack of transparency, trust, and effective communications. If you control the hiring and firing process, you control academic freedom. Intimidation and threats of dismissal have created the same environment that helped foster the sexual abuse cover-up problems and unethical behavior in our services that we read about all too often lately. If you speak up, you are not a “team player.” It is believed by many that the provost wants NDU modeled after a civilian university with all components housed on the main NDU campus. He wants to be the first civilian president of NDU. Awarding masters degrees (and eventually terminal degrees) is most important. His “reference” group is the other university presidents and deans in the NCR, not the combatant commanders. His definition of joint professional military education is not in alignment with the mission statement directed by CJCS — education for warfighters. He is building a university and hiring faculty “in his own image.” Instead of hiring faculty with Joint Staff and Combatant Command experience (especially at JFSC to teach operational level warfighting) his main criterion is to have a terminal degree (doesn’t matter from where or what in). This requirement has placed a tremendous burden on the current Title X faculty at JFSC. We seem to be following a playbook that has a striking resemblance to a certain dissertation on joint professional military education based on an article written on the history of the same subject, but without the benefit of ever serving in a real joint assignment on the Joint Staff or Combatant Command. Without the latter, it is difficult to understand the true needs of the joint planning and execution community (JPEC).

Dysfunctional organizational structure. From the dysfunctional leadership came a dysfunctional organizational structure. The “One NDU” concept of consolidation of functions and resources resulted in the undermining of the component colleges. At JFSC, for example, the consolidation of IT and wargaming support at NDU had a devastating effect on the ability to conduct classes and exercises. JFSC modeling and simulation capability went from a support staff of 14 folks to three, with the requirement to support upwards of 18 seminars conducting exercises simultaneously. This reduced support affected the CJCS Process of Accreditation of Joint Education of the JAWS recently. The CJCS J7 is well aware of these problems. The NDU staff has grown by 184 positions under the “One NDU” concept while JFSC, for example, has lost 41 positions. This growth in administrative positions and activities mirrors what is important to the provost — civilian university-like structure (more “associate deans”) than teaching real warfighting (like HLSPC and JIMPC courses). Once again, the commandants and deans of the component colleges have protested to no avail. The answer is “don’t be disloyal”; “don’t fight the plan”; “you are not being a team player.” I would liken the “One NDU” concept to “new Coke,” the “Edsel,” and the “Bay of Pigs” incident. When “group think” grips an organization lead by perhaps power-hungry, self-serving persons, with other persons of the same ilk (arrogant and incompetent) driving the bus, the organization goes from “good to good gracious.”

Second- and third-order effects of a dysfunctional leadership environment and organizational structure. The leadership and climate survey of 2013 may reveal very poor morale within NDU — if you could get ahold of an unfiltered version. Tom referred to the ongoing 2014 survey in a previous article. Good luck getting a look at the actual data. The research and assessment process at NDU (and JFSC) is highly suspect (control information flow and influence the hiring process by placing cronies in leadership positions, and you control an organization). The faculty (through the NDU faculty assembly) voiced their concerns to the NDU president (there is a rumor that the Faculty Assembly will be dissolved!). Good people are choosing to leave NDU rather than suffer through the current environment. The favoritism shown by CISA and its “chancellor” speaks volumes to the other component colleges that are being cut to the bone in resources. The canceling of HLSPC and JIMPC, two high-demand one-week courses that were deemed very important to combatant commanders, DHS, NGB, services, and OSD, is indicative of the out-of-touch leadership at NDU. The cost savings were very minimal; the impact internally to JFSC curricula across all the schools that depended on these courses was significant. According to the provost, these courses were cancelled for other “university priorities.” What could possibly be more important than homeland security (terrorism, border issues, disaster relief), homeland defense, and defense support of civil Authorities? Read our strategic guidance documents or, of more import, watched the news or read Foreign Policy lately?

A grave concern: the future of the Joint Forces Staff College. The congressionally sanctioned “Non-Resident Satellite Program” (10 US Code 2155), which authorized the pilot program of conducting two non-resident JPME II courses, is currently being conducted in Tampa, FL for CENTCOM and SOCOM. The program aims at saving TDY costs by conducting JPME II at combatant command locations rather than bringing officers TDY to JFSC Norfolk for ten weeks. After a couple of courses in Tampa, the provost declared that the “NRSP was as good or better than the resident program.” This statement was made without the benefit of any data or assessment plan (a priori research). The discussion now is to expand the NRSP to all combatant commands and to the NCR. If this happens, the need for JFSC will go away (much like JFCOM) and with it, jobs in the Tidewater area. The bigger issue is that this program cannot meet the intent of the law that put the requirement for JPME II at JFSC. Unfortunately, based on the provost’s and others’ intent, if NRSP is “deemed” successful, JFSC can be closed, and JAWS can be moved to NDU Campus. JCWS (JPME II) could be subsumed under CISA? Brilliant. Eisenhower, Nimitz and Ike Skelton are probably rolling over in their graves…

The good news: The CJCS designated Ambassador Wanda Nesbitt as the interim president of National Defense University. She is person of strong character who possesses all of the attributes of a good leader and will do well as NDU-P if not marginalized and under-cut. That can be prevented by removing the rest of the cancer cells at NDU (unfortunately, some of those cancer cells have been allowed to grow at JFSC). A good nodal analysis would reveal an enabler or two at JFSC and the Joint Staff. The component colleges have strong leadership, and if properly resourced, will continue to produce the strategic leaders I referenced above.

Jerry Mitchell is a retired infantry officer and former associate professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the United States Military Academy. He was also an associate professor at the Joint Forces Staff College, National Defense University, where he taught Joint Operations Planning and the Homeland Security/Homeland Defense Planner’s Course for 21 years until recently retiring. The opinions and perceptions described above, although probably shared by many at NDU, are the author’s.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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